(October 5, 2011 - Boise Weekly)

Remembering Robert Auth

Local artist is celebrated with new biography and exhibit at Brown's Gallery

by Jana Moseley

It was the fall of 2010 when Robert Auth found out he had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS. And while this was ultimately a death sentence for the longtime Boise artist and educator, it was also the driving force behind his biography, Francie's Camera: The Art and Stories of Robert Auth. Enlisting the help of his nephew Marc Auth and local author and former Boise Weekly Editor Nick Collias, the trio set about defining his legacy.

Auth, or Bob as he was known to friends and family, was a teacher, collector, historian, storyteller, soldier, and above all, creator. Originally from Illinois, Auth fell in love with Idaho on a hunting trip in 1955 and resolved to return and live in the state.

In 1959, he settled in Boise and started a long career teaching art in the Boise School District, as well as working with students at College of Idaho and Boise State. In addition to accolades he received as an instructor, Auth won several awards for his art during his life and was even selected for an exhibit showcasing Idaho artists at the Smithsonian.

Auth produced an eclectic array of art throughout his life. His body of work includes pen-and-ink drawings, calligraphy, sculptures, watercolor, papier-mache, engravings, etchings and pastels. He's best known, however, for the acrylic pop art paintings he made in the '60s and '70s, when his artwork was widely exhibited in the Treasure Valley. In fact, his work is still on display at Boise Art Museum, Brown's Gallery and Boise Airport.

In his acrylic era, Auth focused on everyday objects, with extreme attention to detail and particular emphasis on reflections.

"There's really no explaining what struck him about something," Collias said. "He would just happen across something ... that he thought was really cool and re-create it."

A cup of coffee, French fries or a simple paint can were reproduced in bold, bright colors, yet contained a photographic element. Auth once described the color schemes of his paintings as "almost a clash of colors ... very bold, in your face."

Whether teaching or creating, art was the focus of Auth's life.

"There are a lot of prolific artists out there but Bob was especially prolific," said nephew Marc. "You look at his body of work and you come to find that he produced as many pieces as could be done in three lifetimes."

During the '70s and '80s, Auth's work went in a totally new direction when he began focusing on Idaho history. He would often produce impeccably detailed pen-and-ink drawings relating the events of Idaho's past.

"To go from very modern pop art-looking stuff to people in buckskins and Native Americans and early turn-of-the-century imagery ... it's almost like it was two different people," said Randall Brown of Brown's Gallery.

And Auth's fascination with frontiersmen and aviation led to a collection of incredibly realistic drawings with spectacular attention to detail.

"He was very much the historian ... very much the perfectionist," added Brown.

When Auth was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2010, he became determined to get his legacy down on paper, a project he had been working toward since his retirement. And that's where Collias and Marc came in.

"He basically said, 'I'm dying within the next year to 18 months. We're on a tight deadline,'" said Collias. And with that, they were off, sorting through a lifetime of art, family history and reference materials, along with hundreds of pages of hand-written manuscripts detailing Auth's life. Collias recalled sitting with Auth for hours, listening to stories. But amid the reminiscing, there was also a sense of urgency.

"He'd call me up sometimes and say, 'You done yet? I'm dying over here,'" said Collias. "It's a tough call to get from somebody."

But getting an entire lifetime into a book in a matter of months was a daunting challenge, and on May 12, 2011, Auth passed away before that dream was realized.

"I think he knew that his time was coming and that he didn't have the hard copy in his hands," said Marc. "But I think he was good with that because there on the table was the whole thing and he was pleased."

After his death, Auth's family began sorting through hundreds of attache cases that contained decades worth of documents, stories, photos and reference materials. In the midst of it was a letter Auth wrote to his sister, Rosemary, in 1987 that captures what this book meant to him.

"Like planting a tree, fathering a child, building a house--I want to leave some evidence of my being here," wrote Auth.

And with his newly minted book and a First Thursday exhibit at Brown's Gallery, Francie's Camera: The Art and Stories of Robert Auth, is his final way of saying, "Bob was here."

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Heart of the Treasure Valley: Bob Auth was an uncompromising artist

Bob Auth was passionate about living a creative life

 - Idaho Statesman

Copyright: © 2011 Idaho Statesman

Published: 05/15/11

Editor’s note: This column was originally scheduled to be published on May 22.

He’s had his own retrospective at the Boise Art Museum, and his illustrated envelopes reside in the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum. Yellow Pine will forever be known for the harmonica festival he instigated; travelers know of him if they’ve seen the biplane that used to hang in the Boise airport, and those who recognize the Boise School District logo know his work.

He won award after award for his work and artwork. His drawings and paintings, sketches and collections are sought, sold and treasured far and wide.

He said: “Being an artist is like being a priest. You share your religion because art is a religion. It’s sacred.”

Bob Auth touched his heart when he said that; the feelings came deep and inseparable, and they came with a directive.

“Follow (your) dream. Follow (your) passion. It might be music, or dancing, painting or printmaking — yeah — it might be also being a mechanic. Do the best you can, working on engines or cars …”

For 84 years, passion was both the internal and external wellspring for Bob’s life and, by extension, his art. In words punctuated by labored breathing, he elucidated what he hoped his legacy would be:

“Teaching. Art. Patriotism. Navy service. Colossal friendships.”

It is time to reflect on his life. A year ago, Lou Gehrig’s disease came swiftly, and the end came with certainty. Bob had been working with Nick Collias on a book about his life and art.

By the time of this interview, Bob had limited stamina, and speech was difficult. Nick, because of his role as story polisher, editor, researcher, designer and publisher, spoke from that relationship.

Nick Collias: “He approached artwork as a way to illustrate his life. It’s almost like something you do, like brushing your teeth in the morning. …The things he saw in his life, he took a little mental snapshot, went into the studio and made an absolutely immense painting out of it.”

Enormous paintings of the surface of a spoon. Reflections in a martini glass. The distortions along the edge of an ashtray. A paint can; a soap bucket. French fries and a coffee cup.

Nick: “This is ‘what — he — saw’ …There’s a little bit of immortality in the whole thing — like, I must create something because I’m going to be gone someday … but some people are more committed to it than others.”

That was one aspect of his work. Bob was born in Bloomington, Ill., but after a hunting trip in Idaho in 1955, he was determined to come west. A frontiersman at heart, born a century too late, Idaho called to him. Idaho history fed his soul.

“(Bob would say) ‘I felt history come into me, and I had to get it out ... I had to express it artistically. I didn’t have any other choice.’ It’s overblown and romantic, but on the other hand, if you don’t believe it, you don’t have art.”

A 7-foot-wide acrylic of the first airmail delivery in Boise at the airport: a civilian airplane and an airmail plane having a drag race over the city.

“He just found himself interested in that stuff, started looking up people involved and asking them what all the good stories were, going to the archives, looking up old photos — and making artwork out of it.”

Ink sketches of the Nez Perce War, scenes of Silver City (complete with rusty tin cans). Soldiers in battle, mountain men and trappers.

As an art teacher at East Junior and Boise High from 1961-81, Bob would search high and low for Civil War uniforms, and would pose his students in authentic regalia — not costumes — around historically accurate cannons that he made, photograph them and sketch them. And then he would fire off the cannons.

“He absolutely made (students) excited about creating artwork and the process of creating artwork. This weird theatrical process… He was going to get kids excited.”

But not only that: There was Bob’s fastidiousness.

Bob writes: “I had one focus, and that was to be accurate with every incident. I used authentic clothing and weapons with models to create the sketches, and then read every book and article I could to build my composition around.”

And when he says he read every book and article, he meant it. When Bob retired from teaching in 1987, he and his wife, Alice, moved to Yellow Pine, closer to the old frontier, to make art. Crammed into “Packrat Palace,” as he called their home, are hundreds of thrift-store attaché cases, neatly labeled with his reference materials: Nez Perce War, vol. 1. Greek mythology. Buckskin Bill. Aviation, volumes 1-7. Correspondence 1941-1945. Auth Family History 1.

Nick: “Artwork as history record … He has a commitment to that deeper than any artist I’ve ever know. He would dig into history and find a story he thought needed to be told and throw himself into it.”

Among his passion-sort-of-obsessions was weaponry. Bob attended nearly every Fort Boise Gun Show from 1961 on. He designed engravings — scenes from his life — for antique and restored rifles.

Bob wrote: “I don’t like to hunt with an ordinary weapon. I like to hunt with a beautiful weapon.”

Based on a centuries-old art form, Bob assembled his lifetime collection of historic bullets and casings on boards — illustrated, of course, with scenes from hunts he’d been on.

Nick: “You can call it egomania to say, all right, this guy thinks that his life is worthy of art. But you have to just respect a guy, too, who goes, you know, my life is art, and it’s art because I care about it enough to make it into art.”

There’s a story about Bob spending $300 for a single bullet casing to complete one of his assemblages.

Nick: “He cared about artwork so much that he made sure it was absolutely perfect. If he didn’t have a good enough image of something, he would go find the thing itself … He paid $300 for just one bullet so he could have it, first of all, and secondly, because he wanted it. Because it was so cool.

“You can only psychoanalyze it so much. Because the answer is, ultimately, he just likes (things). ... The man found an object in the world that he loved so much that we can’t understand it.”

Bob’s book will be called “Francie’s Camera,” a tribute to his mother, whose camera was never far from hand. She recorded thousands of snapshots that were of interest, sometimes just to her alone, and that’s the philosophy that Bob grew up with. He claimed his inclination toward, umm, collecting, was in his DNA.

But that bodes well for the legacy of generations. Her story is his story — and his story is Idaho’s as well.

“(Artists like Bob) created things worthy of the national and international stage. ... But they were committed to Idaho as a source of artistic inspiration and Idaho as a lifestyle. The people and the place … ”

Bob’s artwork combined historical record and personal record, which was, in the end, one and the same. It matters because — well, because these are paintings and drawings of events and places that matter and things that fascinated him.

Nick: “His basic approach was ‘I need to be excited about what I’m doing. I’m going to do things that I’m excited about.’ Artwork for him was an expression of excitement.

“Which opens you up to the question: What are YOU doing? It’s so deep and authentic; he’s totally following his inner muse.”

At the time of this interview, Bob’s hand — his right hand, which made graceful calligraphic flourishes and meticulous ink renderings and applied bold acrylic paint — was still and stiff in his lap.

Bob: “That is so depressing. Because a writer wants to write, a dancer wants to dance, and artists want to — art.”

His eyes crinkled in laughter.

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Yellow Pine veteran honors those who served

By Dan Popkey - dpopkey@idahostatesman.com

Published: 05/26/0

Thousands of times in his long life, Bob Auth has created beautiful things to make people happy.

With the dedication of a veterans monument in Yellow Pine today for Memorial Day, the World War II Navy machinist's mate does more than honor comrades in arms. He distinguishes himself.

Auth, 79, is the force behind a memorial to men and women from the high basin near the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River. Auth's design, in shiny black granite, mirrors Antimony Ridge. The mountain looms east of the village, pop. 32 in winter, about 200 in summer.

He agreed to take on the monument more than two years ago, despite a fight with prostate cancer and dozens of projects demanding attention.

"His most endearing quality is endurance, " said Margaret Vranish, his closest ally in the monument effort. Vranish, an Air Force vet, sewed the Civil War replica uniforms for seven men who will fire two cannons at today's dedication at 11 a.m.

The six-pound cannons, Peter and Paul, were built by Auth, a man of peripatetic interests. He also taught art in Boise schools for 30 years; collects guns, stamps and coins; exhibited his painting and calligraphy at the Smithsonian; was a good friend of mountain man Buckskin Bill; painted the picture at the Boise Airport of the biplane that began the nation's first scheduled air service; bakes pineapple upside-down cakes; and designs the T-shirts for the annual Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest.

I had some trouble hunting down Auth, but one of his three daughters advised patience. "He probably won't call back till dusk. If he's onto something, he doesn't even think about food or water, " said Chris Niebrand, daughter No. 1 and assistant principal at Borah High.

The three-hour drive to Auth's cabin above the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon was more than a respite on a lovely day. It was a journey to the mountain retreat of a whirlwind who calls himself "The Last Victorian."

His sitting room features a high-backed throne from Idaho's first Knights of Columbus lodge, an Eastlake parlor table, a medallion sofa, a bronze by famed 19th century sculptor John Rogers, busts of Lincoln and Jefferson, a chair from the Civil War and one from Texas made of cow horn and leather. There are two buffalo heads and a pronghorn, and a fuchsia-shaded lamp in the image of a slinky Egyptian princess.

Auth came to Idaho in 1955 from Bloomington, Ill., to hunt. He fell in love with the mountains and, along with two buddies, moved his family first to Burley and then Boise.

One of his dear friends is Boise Airport Police Chief Mike Johnson, the former U.S. marshal for Idaho, who will speak at today's dedication. Johnson met Auth 35 years ago when Johnson was in ROTC at Borah and Auth drove an old van painted like a rig from TV's "Hogan's Heroes, " only this one had a cannon in back.

Both gun nuts, they hit it off.

Johnson helped raise money for the $6,000 monument, after Auth called him in desperation when just one of 50 letters to potential corporate contributors brought any cash -- $500 from Idaho Power Co.

Johnson likes to kid Auth about his habits. On a recent visit with former FBI agent Mike Dillon, the two cops noted Auth's yard tools hanging on a shed. Normal enough, but every one of Bob Auth's handles is painted fire engine red, while the business end is robin's egg blue.

"That's the signature of a serial killer, " joked Johnson. "So we gave him a hard time -- somebody that goes to that much effort with a rake maybe has a screw loose."

Auth knows he's odd. When I asked if he also collected briefcases -- there were a dozen under a tarp on his deck -- he got defensive.

"I've got about 400 of 'em -- but let me elaborate. I never pay more than $3 for a briefcase! I get 'em at garage sales and thrift stores."

The briefcases are Auth's filing system, marked in ink on duct tape. He learned to keep stuff from a high school art teacher, Miss Esther Robinson, in 1941.

"It started out with a little box and it led to one, two, three sheds full of data, " he said. "If you're an artist and your range of interests is from this horizon to that horizon, you gobble everything up."

Historian Arthur Hart is glad Auth is a pack rat. He dedicated his book, "Wings Over Idaho, " to his friend.

"Bob's amazing, " said Hart, who relied on Auth's collection of airline logos, shoulder patches and early photos of pilots. "He had so much original stuff I never could have found anywhere else."

At today's dedication, longtime Valley County sheriff's Deputy Dave McClintock will lead the cannon crew. He was to be a gun captain, but Auth couldn't find the right shoulder boards.

"So, we elevated him to major, " Auth said.

McClintock has lived 35 years in Yellow Pine, far from pretense.

He has little interest in history. But he donned his uniform and stood for photos on our visit, and today will shout "Fire Peter!" and "Fire Paul!" to his crew.

"You can't say no to Bob, " said McClintock.

But after four hours with Auth, I still couldn't figure out what drove him to work so hard to remember 82 people from Yellow Pine who served from the Spanish American to the Persian Gulf wars.

He shucked questions about his feelings until Statesman photographer Joe Jaszewski and I readied to go. Standing at the memorial, Auth let it out.

"No. 1, I'm a veteran, so maybe there's a bit of selfishness there, " he began. "But No. 2, this is a little podunk mountain community that for the vast number of people doesn't even exist. We don't enjoy the prominence of Idaho City, or even Atlanta.

"I don't want to make a big issue of my patriotism, but I believe in everything we fought for from the very inception of our country. When a guy stands up, or a woman stands up, and says, 'I will defend, ' that does something to me."

Auth began to weep, behind large eyeglasses.

"I'm sorry. I get emotional. but there's guys over there right now dying and they don't know why. But they said, 'I will.' There's some things I believe in, and believe in deeply. And when they said, 'It's for our veterans, ' I said, 'You're damn well right!'"

Happy Memorial Day, Bob. You're unforgettable.

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